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B'Midbar/Numbers 23:12 And he replied and he said, "Is it not that whatever the L-rd puts in my mouth, that I must take care to speak?"
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Balaam has just delivered the first of his three prophetic oracles, praising Israel - albeit not as enthusiastically as is yet to come - and Balak has just upbraided him for blessing Israel when he has been hired to curse them. Balak's speech starts with the normal - "and he said" - while Balaam's response is more elaborate. Instead of the most frequently used biblical Hebrew technique for reporting speech, simply another , the narrator inserts an explicit response verb: - the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to answer, reply, respond or return (in the sense of speech). The text signals that this is not just the next piece of speech in an arbitrary conversation; this is a specific piece of response speech, responding to what has gone before: Balak's expression of indignation. This is confirmed by the next verse restarting the speech formula from the beginning: , "and he said to him, Balak ...", where all the modern translations take a new paragraph, signalling a break in time and change of subject. Balaam's response is therefore made to stand out from the surrounding conversation.
What was it about Balaam's words that needed highlighting? Paraphrasing, we might hear him saying, "What else did you expect me to say? Didn't I warn you?" Surely this is is simply repeating his first words to Balak when they met: "And now that I have come to you, have I the power to speak freely? I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth" (B'Midbar 22:38, JPS). This in turn is a vocalisation of whatHaShem tells Balaam when he is summoned by Balak's messengers - "If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them, but whatever I command you, that you shall do" (22:20, JPS) and the angel who confronts Balaam on the way repeats: "Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you" (22:35, JPS). The Sforno confirms this with his own paraphrase: "You already know that He is the G-d of Israel, and will not speak aught but good regarding Israel." Balaam appears to be operating within his remit: he has not cursed Israel as Balak wants; on the contrary, he is speaking words of blessing. Moreover, he is to repeat this disclaimer twice more: "But I told you: Whatever the L-RD says, that I must do" (23:26, JPS), in very similar words and highlighted using the same textual device; then finally, recalling what he had initially said before leaving Pethor to come to Moab, "But I even told the messengers you sent to me, 'Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to the L-RD's command. What the L-RD says, that I must say'" (24:1-13, JPS). This appears to be quite consistent and reasonable.
Nechama Leibowitz questions the attitude with which Balaam speaks. "Let us compare", she writes, "the language describing the receiving of the word of the L-rd to the prophets with that of Balaam." Jeremiah's book of prophecy starts simply with "The word of the L-RD came to me" (Jeremiah 1:4); Ezekiel's with "The word of the L-RD came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, by the Chebar Canal, in the land of the Chaldeans. And the hand of the L-RD came upon him there" (Ezekiel 1:3, JPS). Like Jeremiah, Hosea and Joel both start in the same way: "The word of the L-RD that came to Hosea son of Beeri" (Hosea 1:1)), "The word of the L-RD that came to Joel son of Pethuel" (Joel 1:1)). Leibowitz comments, "The prophets of Israel do not run after prophecy; on the contrary, it appears that they objected to this sudden imposition from on high. Far from seeking it, it was thrust upon them." Balaam, on the other hand, seems to work in the opposite direction: "Build me seven altars here and have seven bulls and seven rams ready here for me ... Stay here beside your offerings while I am gone. Perhaps the L-RD will grant me a manifestation, and whatever He reveals to me I will tell you" (B'Midbar 23:1,3, JPS); "Stay here beside your offerings, while I seek a manifestation yonder" (v. 15, JPS). Balaam, says Leibowitz, "hankers after prophecy and strives, through magical means, to force it down from heaven."
Another important difference between Balaam and the prophets of Israel is the way in which they anchor the authority they claim. While the prophets use a variety of authority formulae - "Thus says the L-rd", "the oracle of the L-rd", "the mouth of the L-rd has spoken" - and drop one or more of HaShem's names into their words at frequent intervals, as for example, "Thus said the L-RD of Hosts: Turn back to me -- says the L-RD of Hosts -- and I will turn back to you -- said the L-RD of Hosts" (Zechariah 1:3, JPS), Balaam's words are instead focussed upon himself - who he is - rather than G-d: "Up, Balak, attend, Give ear unto me, son of Zippor!" (B'Midbar 23:18, JPS); it is most obvious in Balaam's last two words: "This is the speech of Bil'am, son of B'or; the speech of the man whose eyes have been opened" (24:3, CJB) and "This is the speech of Bil'am, son of B'or; the speech of the man whose eyes have been opened; the speech of him who hears G-d's words; who knows what 'Elyon knows, who sees what Shaddai sees, who has fallen, yet has open eyes" (vv. 15-16, CJB). Notice also that although G-d's name is sometimes present in what Balaam says, Balaam claims to know what G-d is saying, to be explaining what G-d thinks or plans, rather than simply speaking G-d's words.
Nevertheless, the ancient sages - who are consistently hostile towards Balaam - remain convinced that Balaam wanted and even intended to curse Israel and would yet have done so had not HaShem prevented him. Quoting the phrase "'And the L-rd put a word in Balaam's mouth' (B'Midbar 23:5), Rabbi Eliezer said: an angel, Rabbi Yohanan said: a hook" (b. Sanhedrin 105b). The Midrash goes further: "He (G-d) twisted his mouth (as with a bit) and pierced it like a man who drives nail into a board" (B'Midbar Rabbah 20:16).
Yeshua was also careful to anchor His words in a recognised authority framework. In the Sermon on the Mount the repeated phrase, "You had heard it said ... but I say to you" sets Yeshua's words in the context of the Torah, which He claims "not to abolish but to complete" (Matthew 5:17, CJB). Being more explicit, He said, "of Myself I do nothing, but say only what the Father has taught Me" (John 8:28, CJB). He was questioned by the chief priests and scribes in the Temple who demanded, "Tell us by what authority You do these things, or who it is that gave You this authority" (Luke 20:2, ESV). Although on that occasion Yeshua refused to recognise their right to directly challenge Him, He publicly declared, "I have not spoken on My own initiative, but the Father who sent Me has given Me a command, namely, what to say and how to say it" (John 12:49, CJB). Although the Sages award both Balaam and Yeshua the same epithet - "that wicked man", they are completely different in what they said and did: Balaam spoke for himself, Yeshua spoke only for the Father and directly in the Father's name. The gospels also show that Yeshua did not rant or rave when teaching; He was not judgemental, but on the contrary was moved by and spoke with compassion.
How do we speak, particularly in G-d's name or on His behalf? Is it simply a question of the words, or is tone and delivery important? Do you always take care to present people with the word of G-d in the same way that Yeshua did? It is easy to feel what we feel is righteous indignation when people don't seem to be obeying G-d's commands from the Bible in the way we think they should be interpreted and obeyed; from that place we can then speak harshly, using words of rebuke and criticism. No doubt Yeshua was tempted to do the same and although the people marvelled because He spoke with authority, He had compassion on them "because they were harried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36, CJB), so taught and fed them instead. When we try to teach or help people, do we simply talk at them and tell them what to do, or do we engage with them first to find out where they are? Yeshua often asked questions to preface or introduce his teaching: "What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep ... What do you think? A man had two sons ..." (Matthew 18:12, 21:28, CJB). This drew the people into His story and gave them permission to think or disagree and enabled them to have ownership of the encounter. If we are be received and to find acceptance for sharing Yeshua's words, we need to follow the example of Yeshua Himself rather than Balaam.
Further Study: Ezekiel 34:2-6; John 3:17; John 5:19-21
Are you quick to listen and slow to speak, turning aside anger with soft
words (Proverbs 15:1), or do you feel a need to speak out quickly and correct
people's mistakes and actions? Let the Spirit of Messiah guide your words
and actions more closely today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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© Jonathan Allen, 2014
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.